Why the “Right” Answer May Not Be Your Answer

UPDATED: May 8, 2013
PUBLISHED: May 8, 2013

Are you looking for the “right” answer or your answer?

As children we are well-trained to find the right answer. We are rewarded for A’s, the honor roll and acing the test. Our education trains us to follow the rules and deliver the expected answers. When we do, the stickers, accolades and congratulations follow.

Yet when we grow up, it gets a little harder. Life and careers don’t have tests with an A if we get the “right” answer.

I recently had coffee with a college student about to graduate. She is struggling with what she wants for her career. She wants her parents to be proud of her and to continue the success she has had in school. She also talked about other students in her graduating class who are set to do “some big things,” like graduate school and working for impressive companies.

Yet she wasn’t sure of the right answer for using her degree. She said that deep down she was hoping that someone might give her the answer. I understood her feelings of self-doubt and uncertainty, because I felt the same at that time in my life.

We discussed that it comes down to not looking for the right answer, but her answer. The grown-up definition of the “right answer” and where we get it is different than when we were in school.

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

It takes time to know these answers, and it’s not easy. And they can change over time and at any point in your career.

My encouragement is to get valued advice and input, of course, but ultimately to look within yourself for the answers. It helps to come back to:

  • What matters most to me in life?
  • What do I want to be known for?
  • What is my definition of success?
  • What do I love to do?
  • What am I best at?
  • If I had no fears, what would I do?
  • What will I regret not doing when I’m 80?
  • What is one step I can take today to move me toward my goal (even if it’s not perfectly clear)?

I find these types of questions are more helpful at getting to our unique answer rather than “right answer” questions, such as: What will my parents want? What will make me look successful to others? What degree or job will mark me as accomplished to the world? What is my best option based on where I work today?

You have a better chance of being really successful—on your terms—by knowing your answers, rather than acting upon what you think you are supposed to do.

Do you have your blinders on?

Once our careers are off and running, we sometimes put our blinders on and only look for the right answer based on our company’s organizational chart and what’s in front of us. We decide the best choice based on where we work today, even if our desired choice doesn’t even exist there.

When I was a new manager a respected leader asked me what my goals were and the kind of career I wanted. I answered quickly and enthusiastically that I wanted to be a Senior Manager next and to keep advancing. I remember a long pause and then his short response, “You should probably think a little bigger than that.” That conversation stuck with me and it makes a lot more sense to me now than it did then.

I was limiting myself by not thinking about my answer, just answers from the organizational chart and the levels at my company. Even though I was very happy at the time, I had my blinders on and didn’t have the self-awareness to realize it.

This happens when we look externally for the “right” answer rather than what we want for our career based on our talents, interests and goals.

Did your right answer get lost in the shuffle?

David became an engineer because he loves solving large and complex problems and being the expert. He started in process design and did such a great job for the “SuperDuper” company that they asked him to move to operations and upgrade their talent there. David wanted to do the right thing, so he reluctantly agreed to the move. After a restructure, he was asked to move to the sales team to increase their technical knowledge. Again, David agreed because he wanted a long-term career at “SuperDuper.”

Two years later, “SuperDuper” was purchased by another company and David’s group was eliminated. He was left asking “How did I get here?” and thinking, “I have to start my job search when I’ve been out of my area of interest and expertise for a long time.” His career gradually turned into being the valued expert of “SuperDuper” rather than his own right answer.

And let’s be clear: We have all made trade-offs in our career for stability and security, and during a very tough market. The challenge is when a minor detour snowballs and results in a very different career than we ever intended.

There are lots of stories just like David’s. He let the “right answer” at his company take priority over his own right answer for a long time.
Know your right answer.

I find that those who have the most enjoyable and satisfying careers are those with the confidence to look within themselves for their unique answers and not define their success based on the perceived expectations of others—org charts, friends, parents, or external comparisons.

Real success and satisfaction comes not from looking for the “right” answer, but finding your answer, and then taking the very important first step toward getting there.

Patti Johnson is a career and workplace expert and the CEO of PeopleResults, a change and human resources consulting firm she founded in 2004. Previously, she was a senior executive at Accenture and has been recently featured as an expert in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, NBC, Money Magazine and Working Mother. Patti is also an instructor for SMU Executive Education and a keynote speaker on “Leading Change.” Her first book, Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work & in Life, hit shelves in May 2014. Visit her website at PattiBJohnson.com.